Looking for solutions for Honolulu’s aging airport

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Hawaii’s airport overhaul has gone into overtime, with billions spent, and customer satisfaction rankings are still among the lowest in the nation.

Always Investigating went step by step through Honolulu’s airport, the good and great, and the bad and ugly. We found that a focus on amenities and getting construction done sooner would impress passengers the most. A debate continues, however, over whether a form of privatization is needed.

Leaky ceilings and wet floors, plywood-lined hallways, and those bathrooms — some parts of Honolulu’s airport are still in need of a major makeover. 

“We cannot have our first appearance for tourists, and their last going-away thoughts, be a derelict, run-down airport,” said State Senator Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology. “We’re third world.”

That’s despite a massive statewide airport modernization that was supposed to be long done by now.

In 2006, then-Gov. Linda Lingle announced a $2.3 billion, 12-year plan to make Hawaii’s consistently low-ranked airports competitive with the best in the nation.

Fourteen years, two governors and nearly $3 billion later, Always Investigating is told it will be a lot longer still before the constant state of construction gives way to a cohesive finished product.

“Over the next two years is when people will really see a lot of these projections coming to completion,” said Tim Sakahara, Department of Transportation spokesman. “We really want to make the facilities first-class facilities that the visitors will be happy when they arrive, and locals and residents can feel proud of as well.”

Depending on where you land or take off, some of the fixed-up parts are pretty good.

“We came in on Alaska and that wing is very nice, beautifully appointed and easy access,” said traveler Kim Sloat.

“I love getting off the plane here and seeing the garden that was here from the time I was a little kid,” said traveler Zena Polly. “And I love that it is restored and as beautiful or better than it used to be.”

Others see only the old or partially new.

“It seems a little outdated, dingy might be the right word for it,” said traveler Mercedes Cook. “There’s a lot of blockage it seems throughout the airport.”

And then there are the social media travel and rating sites with one-star reviews aplenty — like “this airport is a joke. but one star is as low as I can rate”; ” a lot of unpleasant experiences;” “worst airport in America.”

Technically second-worst among large airports, according to the most recent J.D. Power satisfaction study. And the worst, LaGuardia, doesn’t plan to be at the bottom for long, with major hub partners like Delta ponying up good chunks for change.

“I believe LaGuardia’s investment mostly private was something like $8 billion, which is more than 2-and-a-half-times our entire statewide modernization budget, it’s a considerable investment,” said Sakahara. “If there was an airline wanted to invest that kind of money, I certainly believe we’d be all ears.”

Instead, it’s a couple hundred million here, a couple hundred million there in state-managed projects. Self-funded improvements by airlines like ANA’s mega lounge, Hawaiian Airlines’ lobby makeovers, and some award-winning restaurant innovations have made a big splash. 

Many passengers notice the nicer storefronts, too, but irregular open-and-close hours that tend to follow just the peak times can leave guests wondering and wandering. Elsewhere, those kinds of always-open perks win top scores.

“Look at Incheon Airport in Korea, the No. 1 airport on the planet, it’s not just simply an airport, it’s a gathering place,” said Wakai. “They have cultural activities. Locals go to the airport to go and watch, dine, shop and be entertained.”

But what still irks Honolulu passengers the most?

“The two biggest complaints we usually receive at the airports was usually about the restrooms and about wi-fi,” said Sakahara.

There’s fast and free wi-fi now. The bathrooms either a hit…

“The changes are beautiful, for instance the bathroom down at this end is fabulous,” said traveler Julie Moseley, who happened to stop at a renovated restroom.

…or a big miss.

“The bathrooms could do a little better job,” Cook said after visiting one of the older restrooms.

“We’re currently in the process of renovating and rehabbing 52 sets of other restrooms in Terminal 2,” said Sakahara.

Whether new or old, frequent-flying locals get all too used to seeing the same broken-don’t-use signs for weeks and months or longer at a time.

“Certainly, this airport alone sees 58,000 people on average every single day coming and going through the airport facility,” said Sakahara. “That’s a lot of use, a lot of wear and tear.” 

The DOT says whether for projects big or small, a form of privatization called an “airports corporation” is key. 

“We don’t control all the things that we’re held responsible for, and with an airport corporation we would be,” said Sakahara. “An airport corporation would help maintain that and streamline the process so that you have more say on the work that you’re doing.”

An airport corporation measure has come short of the finish line at the legislature several years running; a carryover measure from last year SB666 has not yet been reintroduced.

“No. sense trying to revisit something that’s not going to pass. I don’t necessarily buy the fact an airport authority is the “only way” we’re going to have a better airport,” said Wakai. The public is tired of excuses, just make stuff happen. I’m a believer that if you are innovative and collaborative, you can make stuff happen within the confines of the government structure as is.”

Construction on some big-budget items is noticeably far along, like the consolidated car rental facility, and the mauka concourse at the site of the old commuter terminal.

Always Investigating will keep track of the costs and deadlines.

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